PRINT May 1969

Marsden Hartley Revisited, or, Were We Really Ever There?

Painting has become definitely masculine at last, mechanistic in its purport.
—Marsden Hartley

IN A WAY, IT IS not surprising that Marsden Hartley has left such a twisting, curling, and at times indistinct wake in American art literature. He was, after all, an erratic follower of styles, the painter of such diverse pictures as Portrait of a German Officer, The Lost Felice, Fisherman’s Last Supper and The Wave; he fell easily under influences ranging from a kind of synthetic Impressionism (the “Segatini stitch”), through Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism and Dada. He traveled widely and, to make matters worse, he wrote. As a man, he was a worrisome, contradictory cuss; at the outset he practiced beating his provincial (or regional, or American) head against a wall of sophistication, and in the end he exorcised his worldliness by butting skulls, again, with his native soil. The Hartley legend, which is to say the content of Hartley’s art, is familiarly fascinating: a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Ernest Hemingway, and a little Dick Diver on the Riviera, all—in small parts—rolled into one. Understandably, there exists a good many printed words about this Hartley: about his appearance (the skeptic face, the baggy clothes), about his early allowance of four dollars per week, about the “Maine-iac,” etc. But comparatively little has been written about Hartley’s pictures, as things in themselves. When Hartley is considered as an artist, his work is more homogenous than has been admitted, and most of the apologies for his pictorial inconsistency seem touchingly irrelevant. (Why this is, is a point to be made further on.)

Marsden Hartley was born in Maine on January 4, 1877 (three years before Hans Hofmann and four before Picasso); he had his first one-man show in Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession Gallery (the details of Hartley’s early career and, indeed, his entire life, can be gotten from the late Elizabeth McCausland’s monograph, published in the early fifties).1 Thus, Hartley surfaced at a crucial moment: “The American painter between 1910 and 1930 had no tradition of revolution to fall back upon; he had no Cézanne or Seurat in his immediate background to pave the way for his experiments.”2 In 1910, Hartley encountered one of his more pervading influences, Albert Pinkham Ryder. Ryder’s simplistic, encrusted arrangements, his painterly integrity, stayed with Hartley, throughout his stylistic meanderings. In 1912, at the relatively late age of thirty-five (most of Marsden Hartley’s contemporaries had preceded him), Hartley left for Europe. Three years later, he had painted the “Berlin series,” “abstract” (though they contained numbers, letters, etc.) paintings, with such titles as Military and Portrait of a German Officer. A composite image of these pictures (which are, peculiarly, composite images) is what has always been my mind’s-eye view of Hartley: Marsden Hartley = German Officer. Perhaps I saw these over and over (to the exclusion of others) in art history classes; perhaps these are the most often reproduced pictures, though I doubt it; or perhaps these are the easiest to get a handle on, being further from Kandinsky or Schwitters than, say, The Wave is from Milton Avery. Nevertheless, they are not universally accepted. Hilton Kramer: “If these [Berlin paintings] were the sole remaining documents of Hartley’s talent, we should eventually tuck him away in future histories as a man hopelessly immersed in false conceptions of modernism.”3

What has disobliged me about the Berlin paintings is their relative academicism (of design), compared to the rest of Hartley’s work, and perhaps that’s what Mr. Kramer had in mind (though it’s difficult to figure out what any critic who does battle with windmills of “modernism” has in mind). But most of Hartley’s critics are bothered by his overall lack of academicism. Even his champion, Mrs. McCausland, wrote: “One of Hartley’s school friends criticized his ‘drawing from life’, and his work itself seems to suggest that he never mastered academic draftsmanship completely.”4 (Italics mine.)

This brings me to what I appraise as the main stumbling block in the critics’ Marsden Hartley: the fetish of “draftsmanship.” It runs something like this (the process is usually concealed, however, to the carrier): Hartley’s paintings look good; Hartley, though, doesn’t look like he can really draw; there must be some reason why “badly drawn” pictures are so convincing. Answer: Hartley is a New England character, “one of the most intense in a long line of American nature mystics,”5 a sort of Eric Hoffer with a brush. All this, you see, gives his stuff such a whole lot of content, enough to transcend the usual need for curvy lines and pointy shapes. The prejudice in favor of “mastered” academic draftsmanship is somewhat indigenous to the American mentality. It’s part of the Protestant work-ethic: if it’s really good, it’s got to be difficult and, if it’s difficult-looking, it’s got to be good. We have a preference for drawing over, if you will, painting, because it meshes more smoothly with work; a painting founded on drawing is more easily recognizable as a product of acquired skill. Marin, Sheeler, Shahn, Hopper, de Kooning, Rivers and Oldenburg can all really draw and, once we are acclimated to the innovations of each, they are more palatable than Max Weber, Arthur Dove, Hartley, Hofmann, Norman Bluhm, Robert Morris, etc. Marsden Hartley’s paintings do not readily indicate that he could use his wrist; Marsden Hartley’s pictures—to give one common denominator belying all that multiplicity—exhibited a preponderance of painting, that is, simply sticking colored grease to the canvas and making/wringing something out of that, and not much else. The seat-of-the-pants methodology causes confusion, albeit at times codified, erudite confusion: “ . . . but something about its blushing color, its over-simplification, makes one fear in some respects Hartley shares a few shortcomings with Gauguin.”6 Or, put in favorable language: “It seems pertinent to note that he was practically unique in his immunity to Picasso.”7 Worst, the ambivalence towards Hartley’s lack of “draftsmanship” and its disturbing irrelevance to the power of his pictures forced a false, retrospective heroism upon him, expediently posing him as Defender of the Faith, against the Bolshevism-of-the-Day: “Now, in spite of the academy of abstraction, a half-century’s denial of subject matter and communication as functions of art is being subjected to re-examination. Hartley anticipated the challenge and met the challenge.”8

Hartley lived a dogged bachelor’s life, arranging sales to get himself back to Europe, making trips (where he was always pictorially swayed) to New Mexico or to his native Maine, where he eventually settled. And all the while he managed to turn out his paintings, and write a bit of prose which, now and then, summed up what he was about much more succinctly than his admirers have done:

Brevity of all things demands intensity, or better say tensity. Tensity comes from experience. The poet must see the space for the word, then see to it the word occupies it . . . we can even learn to use hackneyed words, like “rose” and “lily,” relieving them of Swinburnian encrustations. We can relieve imagery from this banality.9

In his sixties, Hartley finally received the kind of recognition due him. In the words of the times:

Last year, Marsden Hartley’s show at the Macbeth Gallery made news. Neglected by the art public for years, Hartley suddenly stepped into the limelight, and, like Max Weber, he was suddenly hailed, after long, empty years, as one of America’s most original artists. No one knows how these things happen, but the art world took heed of the forceful art of Hartley—and liked it.10

. . . which say it, and yet don’t. We do know how these things happen: when the “most original artist” is working, the “art world” is preoccupied with obsolete or mythical “standards”; when the artist connives his way to survival, he is belatedly recognized, at first for his suffering and persistence and then, maybe, for his art. (Presently, the pendulum is in the other sector of the arc, paralleling our philosophy of jurisprudence: better undeserved fame for a hundred gimmickers than undeserved neglect for one original artist.) And when Hartley was praised, the words had a definite associative tinge: emphatic, virile, pious. haunting, masculine, blunt, “more of bone than juices,”11 etc. If it wasn’t Hartley-the-man, then it was Hartley with an historical crutch: “An entire study of Hartley’s painterly evolution could (and should) be written in terms of his changing relation to Cézanne.”12

Whether Marsden Hartley existed as an artist in relation to Cézanne, Maurer, Feininger, Weber, Ryder, Matisse, Kandinsky, or Rouault is, in the end, moot. Not only has the legend of the personality receded into temporal distance, but we have lost much of our desire for the steamy, warm breath of the artist-person emanating from paintings; we look at all art as if it were Old Kingdom Egyptian. Hartley, you see, was all business, and his pictures will probably stand such a look.

Marsden Hartley was able to enjoy only a few years of his own fame, for he died on September 2, 1943. “Hartley’s heirs, according to his oft-expressed wishes, had his body cremated and the ashes scattered over the Androscoggin in Maine.”13


The most significant picture in the exhibition at the University of Texas in Austin, in terms of both Hartley’s quality and consistency, is, I think, a small oil entitled Boulder and Brake, Dogtown, 1931. Although it is crucial it is a difficult picture to discuss; one of the reasons is that, like most of Hartley’s work, it transcends any kind of draftsmanship, any lusciousness of color and/or handling, and veers away toward a self-contained integrity, inviting only such inadequate descriptive equivalents as homely, tough, solid, gritty, etc. Still, the painting relates to our au courant appetites for the aggressively amorphous (see “Nine in a Warehouse,” Artforum, February, 1969), for openness of intent and for the conspicuously ordinary (Hartley’s picture is painted on 18 by 24 inch academy board).

The drawing (the delineation and tonal modeling, assuming they can be separated from the chroma and paint surface of the picture) in this painting is unique. In spite of what seem like great, slicing, sausages of lines, Hartley’s delineation is minimal, that is, it is unadorned with minor carving; the “thick lines” are rather the application of constant heavy pressure, a decisiveness. The result is the feeling one gets in many Hartleys (and it is one of the consistencies of his style) that the mark is too large for the format, that the bludgeoning strokes will burst the bounds of the painting; from our adumbrated anxiety, Hartley derives his power. Also, this muscular delineation contains (within the rocks and trees) Hartley’s “Expressionistic” paint handling, preventing it from over-emoting and keeping our interest in the painting. And, although the picture is a near-monochrome, Hartley’s use of tonal differences seems less intended to model particular forms in light-and-shadow than it does to cast (or emit) light from the entire picture surface: a dark patch makes the big boulder bright; the dark tree stump sets off the comparatively wispy sky. In summary (and to return to the earlier comments about Hartley’s “draftsmanship”), Hartley’s delineating and modeling is a painting device, something which hardly survives (as witness the few lithographs and drawings in the show) on its own.

Hartley’s arrangements (or compositions) are usually awkward-looking, and in Boulder and Brake, Dogtown, he is in peak form: the tops of the boulder and stump are nearly, and disquietingly, coincidental, as are the lower right-hand corners of the same boulder and a smaller rock; a great, idiot brown form moves in from the left-hand edge and belligerently occupies an upper corner of the picture; the weight sinks, uncontested, to the bottom, the struggling rocks are caught in a morass; the whole business leans to the right (another prevailing tendency); and the sky is left alien to the lumpy, five-sixths majority of earth-forms. Hartley, in short, gives you nothing in the way of sugar-coating. Finally, Hartley, in eliminating most of the delectations of hue, has not abandoned color; he has, as they say, “fiberated” it: his painterly variations are as natural to paint as the counterparts were, in actuality, to the rocks themselves.

Proceeding from this picture, we can pick up traces of the elements of quality in earlier works. In Storm Clouds, Maine, 1908, Hartley exhibits niceties of stroke, but manages, in painting the clouds. to stick in what would be an extra helping of white paint; out of landscape character, it nevertheless “anchors” the picture vis-à-vis structural demands characteristic of Hartley. Also, there is a beautiful, flat Manet-ish cloud which reappears in Mt. Katadhin, 1942. Deserted Farm, 1909, pictures a farm alienated not only iconographically (picturesque dilapidation, etc.), but pictorially as well: the small buildings are placed parallel and near the lower edge, crushed by the rocks on the left, the brutal trees on the right, and the weight of a dark cliff which occupies at least half the picture area. Moreover, the farm is outshined by a bright sky at top. Another picture with a similar theme, Desertion, 1912, has nearly the same effect. In El Santo, 1917, Hartley hits his stride: the colors are characteristically (save for the Berlin pictures) greyed; he begins to use them as hues and paint areas (further indifference to standard drawing); and his arrangement takes on a typical sensibility of having too few elements to justify the format, thus leaving it open to the grandeur of his painting.

The Iron Cross, 1915, out of the Berlin series, contains what by now have become drawbacks: a composition with a center of interest and balanced connecting rods to the framing edges of the picture, a black background which is truly tube black, full chroma colors (except for the weak blues), and ideational shapes (squares, circles). But the picture is good, it moves us. Why? Again, it is Hartley’s directness, his graphic admission that all this stuff is, anyway, a painting device. Hartley’s symbols are similarly restrained—neither too many nor too exoteric. And, like Storm Clouds, Maine, Hartley uses a “flawed” white to anchor the picture within the frame.

There are in the exhibition a series of Maine-derived paintings which show, more or less, the same virtues of Boulder and Brake, Dogtown; the more imagistic Hartleys, including the only one of the more well known canvases (Portrait of a German Officer, Fisherman’s Last Supper, The Wave, Portrait of Ryder, and Evening Storm, Schoodic, Maine) to be included, The Lost Felice, are enjoyable, but not essential. Two late pictures, Grey Gull, 1941, and Mt. Katadhin are, however, tributes to the gentle tenacity of Marsden Hartley. In Grey Gull, the painting of it has almost eliminated any drawing, except for the intrusion of the basic bird shape into the ground; the rest is painting as pure as Newman or Rothko, where, too, the reduction of color to a soft proposition has only enriched the surface and, indeed, the depths. Mt. Katadhin, scene of Hartley’s spiritual battles with Hiroshige and Cézanne, is painted, as far as schema are concerned, with two colors, red and blue. Hartley puts the blue, a Prussian, at the bottom, and makes it stay on the surface; he forces a wine red to do for the forest, and tops the picture with nuances of purple, blue and greys (and a thousand others, it appears) which make, in a mood not unlike the rhythms of Hartley’s own poetry, the mountains and sky into flesh. Marsden Hartley said:

How like the sea
To be Always certain
Of its lyric fluency
Often it is
Like this
With terrible mysteries
Stiff tone of death
In every wave
What more can we have
Save perhaps a little love.

Peter Plagens



1. McCausland, Elizabeth, Marsden Hartley, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1952.

2. Davidson, Abraham, “Cubism and the Early American Modernist,” College Art Journal, Winter, 1966–67, p. 128.

3. Kramer, Hilton, “Abstract Interlude,” Art Digest, January 1, 1955, p. 9.

4. McCausland, Elizabeth, op. cit., p. 5.

5. I. H. S., Art News, November, 1960, p. 13.

6. . . . Art News, February 15, 1943, p. 24.

7. S. T., “Marsden Hartley,” Arts, May-June, 1962, p. 92.

8. McCausland, Elizabeth, op. cit., p. 16.

9. Op. cit., pp. 152–53.

10. H. B., Art Digest, February 15, 1943, p. 8.

11. V. Y., Arts, June, 1957, p. 48.

12. Kramer, Hilton, “Hartley and Modern Painting,” Arts, February, 1961.

13. M. R., “Obituary,” Art Digest, October 1, 1943, p. 29.